Passing Judgment on Louis Riel
Apparently the trial of Louis Riel was a landmark case in Canadian history, although I’d be committing perjury if I claimed to have heard about it before playing High Treason. Thank goodness, then, that other than a few card descriptions and notes in the rulebook, High Treason isn’t the sort of game that requires any foreknowledge. More than a history game, it’s a trial simulator, with all the ups, downs, and shocking reveals of a courtroom drama.
Yes, including the ability to shout, “Objection!”
Like many modern historical games, the fate of High Treason is in the cards. Both the defense and prosecution pull from the same deck, then labor to employ their attorneys and witnesses to greater effect than their opposition, hoping to sway the jury to either acquit Riel or send him to the hangman’s noose. And right away, this is the source of both the game’s greatest strengths and some of its flimsier elements.
The good part is that designer Alex Berry understands how to handle multi-use cards, providing options without burying you beneath an avalanche of decisions. Every single offering can be used in a few different ways, often depending on which phase of the trial you’re on. The same attorney, for instance, will provide one benefit during jury selection and an entirely different benefit during the trial proper.
Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of text to skim through. But the trick to the cards’ streamlining is that you’re never forced to consider everything all at once. Instead, your turn sees you either using something right now — usually determining whether to deploy its event or a few spare actions — or banking it for the summation arguments at the conclusion of the trial. The decision isn’t between three possible events, an objection, actions, or banking. It’s between using it now or hoarding it for later. You could even pretend the boxes for other phases don’t exist. In terms of function, they might as well not even be there.
Okay, so it’s surprisingly approachable. But what are the cards good for?
That’s a good question, and also the source of High Treason’s first irritation. A lot of the time, cards are used to manipulate the board’s seven aspect tracks. These reflect the various issues that your jurors are likely to grapple with during the course of the trial. Because Louis Riel’s rebellion touched on issues of language, religion, and status, each track increases along with Riel’s culpability. The prosecutor tries to shift them upward, indicating that Riel’s rebellion was abusive of the poor, or protestants, or French-speakers, or whatever else. In turn, the defense tries to sway them back.
It should be noted that this system is functional, especially thanks to the juror system, which we’ll discuss momentarily. Still, pushing markers along tracks isn’t the most thrilling way to sway hearts and minds, especially when games like Churchill and Pericles present a far more nuanced interpretation of how topics are introduced and debated. In both instances you’re pushing a marker back and forth; but where Mark Herman’s war-and-debate games are about securing and capitulating crucial points at the right moment, High Treason almost goes out of its way to drain its debate of any color. When the half-native Métis speak in Riel’s defense, the occasion should be stirring. Instead, the resultant bump on the language tracks carries all the thrill of a bus delay.
On the other hand, this blandness is forgivable because of the jury system. If anything, the jurors are the true protagonists of the show. I’d even go so far as to argue that they’re the smartest thing about the whole game.
The goal, of course, is to persuade the jury of your cause’s rightness. But a jury is composed of human beings, each with his own perspective, innate biases, and sense of right and wrong. In High Treason this is represented by hidden sympathies — language, religion, and occupation. Think of these as your victory conditions. During jury selection, both the prosecution and defense are allowed to question the prospective jurors, revealing or peeking at traits. The information you’ve gained is then used to dismiss them down to a manageable half-dozen. Do you want a consistent jury, or a gang of outliers? How many Catholics? How many government workers? With the right group, certain aspect tracks might not matter at all. Best choose wisely.
From there, nearly everything is informed by the presence of those six jurors. Aspects, for example? Blather on about one issue or another and you’ll wear out the topic. A man can only hear so much about the plight of farmers before he forswears bacon. Jurors can even be appealed to individually, adding or removing markers that indicate their sympathies. Once all the witnesses have stepped down and the attorneys are done arguing, the trial enters final deliberation. Then any juror swayed by your reasoning becomes a secret agent for your side, spreading influence and further manipulating the aspect tracks. These last-second changes can make or break the entire case.
It’s vaguely reminiscent of Argent: The Consoritum’s, uh, consortium, except each juror is invested in multiple, sometimes overlapping aspects of the trial. And, of course, there’s also the direct hand you take in selecting what the entire trial will be about. If a particular juror favors your opposition on every topic, you have only yourself to blame for not dismissing him.
Beginning and ending with the jury also conveys a surprisingly personal touch, one that’s both illuminating and critical of how jury trials operate. While evidence of Riel’s guilt or insanity is important, it’s secondary to engaging with the six individuals tasked with deciding whether a man hangs or goes free. Sure, the prosecution needs some proof. Riel will avoid conviction if the prosecution doesn’t produce any exhibits. But the focus rests squarely on the ability to persuade the jury that Louis Riel is a monster who intends to steal their lunch money, reality be damned.
There’s one more burr in High Treason’s britches, and it’s the issue of bullshittery. Because the proceedings rely so heavily on the luck of the draw, it’s entirely possible to find yourself in need of attorneys to object to powerful events, or drowning beneath a pile of weak cards, or lacking any evidence . While most events do little more than trade pips on the aspect tracks, others are devastatingly powerful, even swinging a previously-convinced juror to a completely new way of thinking. There’s nothing more irritating than leveraging an entire hand of wimpy cards to slowly bring a juror around, only to watch your rival reverse the whole thing on a whim.
Which is why it’s so important that High Treason is a short game. From jury selection to final deliberation in half an hour. Who cares that you drew poorly when you can simply play again? More than most games, it lends itself well to repeat plays, with new approaches and strategies becoming apparent with repetition.
In summation, High Treason: The Trial of Louis Riel handles its courtroom shenanigans with a deft touch. At times its gameplay veers between toddlers batting a tetherball and a pro spiking the ball into their faces. Fortunately, that’s the exception. Most of the time, its courtroom drama is carried by near-perfect card play, the tension of unrevealed information, and a truly brilliant jury system. In the rulebook, the publisher hints that we may be seeing more trial games. Given that their freshman effort was this solid, we can only hope.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. For the record, sir, my hidden traits are English-speaking, Protestant, and [unrevealed]).
A complimentary copy was provided.